Angelic Popes and Antichrists

"Ego sum papa" (I am the pope), the pope revealed as Antichrist in what is alleged to be a 15th cent. French handbill directed against Pope Alexander VI, though looks to me more like a 16th century Lutheran production

“Ego sum papa” (I am the pope), the pope revealed as Antichrist in what is alleged to be a 15th cent. French handbill directed against Pope Alexander VI, but looks to me more like a 16th century Lutheran production.

Change of Popes Doesn’t Sit Well With Traditionalists” is just one of the recent headlines describing the reaction of some conservative Catholics to the new pontificate. Chief among the pope’s transgressions to date has been that he last week washed the feet of a Muslim woman during Rome’s Holy Thursday ceremonies. It is not clear from conservative comment whether her religion or her gender stirred the greater alarm. It seems clear, however, that no good can come of it.

Such dire prognostications have been rivalled by headlines drawing favourable attention to the new pope’s “humility.” These reached self-parody in the tweeting of Los Angeles’ former archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony who effervesced about the new pope’s choice of black shoes. As not a few of his twitter followers pointed out, his comments were rich coming from a man who had not that long ago lavished cUS$180 million on a new cathedral.

By their shoes shall ye know them

By their shoes shall ye know them

One of the less attractive features of the Christian genre known as “apocalyptic” is what Nietzsche described as ressentiment: a strain of passive aggression biding its time until Jesus returns to exact brutal, final and disproportionate vengeance on behalf of the writer. Of course, any theologian will point out that apocalyptic literature also expresses (to quote another nineteenth century writer) the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, religious revenge-fantasies have an appeal that extends well beyond the circle of the objectively oppressed.

I think that there is a faint echo of this dynamic in the fascination of the media (and many Christians) with “what kind of pope” this one is going to be. The implicit question underying media scrutiny seems to be: is this pope going to compel me to adopt a posture of permanent outrage, or he going to help me exact revenge on my opponents?

The scholar of mediaeval apocalyptic thought, Bernard McGinn, has noted the way in which the papacy began to take on an apocalyptic mantle in the early Middle Ages.* From the 10th century the popes either promoted or hitched their wagons to the cause of ‘reform.’ Reform in this case meant wresting control of church offices and monasteries from the grasp of wealthy European dynasties. The result was supposed to be that the clergy now devoted themselves to the mission of the church rather than the amassing of dynastic power and wealth.

The association of the papacy with the reform movement led a Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore (d1202), to speculate that in the last ‘status’ or age of the church, Christian society would be purified by an “angelic pope” working in cooperation with holy monks.

Illustration from Vaticinia de Pontificibus (Prophecies concerning the Popes) (London BL – Harley 1340 f. 15r), a text written in the tradition of Joachim of Fiore

Joachim’s complicated speculations about the Christian future proved wildly popular (and their influence can still be seen in the fascination with the “End-Times” of some Evangelical Protestants). This strain of apocalypticism could work extremely well for the mediaeval reform movement. But when the revolution in the medieval church inevitably failed to meet the reform movement’s high ideals, Joachimite apocalypticism could also turn against it.

Margaritone d’Arezzo also called di Magnano (c1216-1290), Francis of Assisi, (c1270-80), Musei Vaticani, Rome; Photo by Nick Thompson

Apocalyptic disillusionment can be seen in the case of the Franciscan ‘Spirituals’ – the radical followers of St Francis, who turned against the church’s hierarchy, and began to speculate that bishops and pope might in fact be instruments of the devil. The Franciscan Spirituals resented the fact that the papacy appeared to have relaxed the stringent poverty of St Francis’s movement – for example, by allowing Franciscans to live in houses and use property held on their behalf by individuals who didn’t belong to the order. A pope who reneged on their founder’s commitment to holy poverty could be none other than the Antichrist himself.

Thereafter the papal antichrist entered western Christian thought alongside the promised angelic pope. The former could be expected to wreck everything; the latter to make it all better. Who was which depended on your theological commitments, and for that reason they were usually exactly the same person.

Scene from the Lutheran "Passionale Christi und Antichristi" (1521) contrasting Christ driving the money changers from the temple with the pope encouraging the traffic in religious goods

Scene from the Lutheran “Passionale Christi und Antichristi” (1521) contrasting Christ driving the money changers from the temple with the papal antichrist encouraging the sale of indulgences

I admit that I, too, have felt heartened by some of the gestures that Francis I has made toward a different papal style. To that extent I conform to the aspirations of what the media describe as “liberal” Catholicism. However, I can think of nothing more stultifying than a church fashioned in the image and likeness of “liberalism” — or, for that matter, of the church’s other ginger groups.

As the liberal political thinker John Stuart Mill pointed out, difference within any body of human beings isn’t just something to be tolerated; it serves a common good:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty)

One of the things that discourages me about both religious and political liberalism – for all its frequent talk of attentiveness to the “other” – is its tendency to slip into the same all-or-nothing game as that played by its opponents. To that extent, we “liberals” should treat the apocalyptic prognostications of Catholic traditionalists as a mirror held up to our own behaviour – and as a warning against treating the papacy as a vicarious way of “getting our own back.”

I recognise that, along with Pius IX, Catholic traditionalists would deny that liberal political thought offers a valid analogy for the way things might work in the Catholic church. Catholic truth, they would argue, isn’t reached by either the values or processes of liberal democracy.

I don’t have the space here to scrutinise the accuracy of that kind of claim. But I will at least observe that, ever since the mediaeval theologian Peter Abelard (d1142) titled his theological textbook Yes and No (Sic et Non) the Catholic church has recognised the value of hearing all sides of a question and arguing the toss.

More to the point, whether or not John Stuart Mill had in his mind the work of that notorious liberal St. Paul when he wrote on the value of dissenting voices, it seems to me that he was working within a tradition that has its roots in Paul’s observation that:

If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?

*See: Bernard McGinn, “Angelic Pope and Papal Antichrist” Church History 47, no. 2 (June 1978): 155-173.

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About Nick Thompson

Lectures in Church History at the University of Auckland
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One Response to Angelic Popes and Antichrists

  1. Nick Thompson says:

    Reblogged this on Ecclesiastical ephemera.

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